We all remember our first time. Mine was in 10th grade AP English in 1963. I loved reading, which was probably why I was in AP in the first place, but the stuff Mrs. Peters was making us read -- Silas Marner, Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter -- was brutal. I was almost about to swear off reading and AP English when I stumbled upon a particular short story, maybe one of the shorter stories ever written, that grabbed me and wouldn't let go. That brief tale spoke to me, it made me enjoy reading again. And unknown to me at the time, it planted a seed for my own short story collection which I'd eventually get published some 50 years later!
My older brother was in college back in 1963, but unlike me he didn't enjoy reading "literature" all that much. So, sometimes he'd have me write papers for him about the things he was supposed to be reading. That made me feel cool and kinda grown up, and, better yet, it meant my brother was beholding to me, which was something a car-less, girl-less, clueless 15-year-old needed to have his back pocket in the early 1960s.
The book he handed me that day in early 1963 was Winner Take Nothing, an old collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway. I knew all about Hemingway, whose suicide was only a few months earlier, and had read The Old Man and the Sea but didn't understand, or really like it.
But Winner Take Nothing was something else again. One of the dog-eared pages opened to "A Clean, Well Lighted Place" and my love affair with the short story was born. I can't remember everything that struck me about this brilliant piece but recall getting the chills when I read it and then reading it over and over and over again. I even started saying "nada" all the time as a way to show off. Yet the real epiphany for me was realizing that authors didn't have to write novels or plays or poetry, the forms I was most familiar with at the time. It was possible, as Hemingway had shown me, to say less with more, to communicate so much in a small, tight space.
That notion came back to me years later when I was struggling with how to write about my own Vietnam, and post Vietnam, war experiences. I made innumerable attempts at a novel, and was about ready to give up when I remembered "A Clean, Well Lighted Place." And then I re-read In Our Time, Hemingway's collection of World War I stories and vignettes. Eureka! I knew how to do this -- a collection of short stories was the answer I'd been seeking!
My book, DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle is in many ways a tribute to Ernest Hemingway. In fact, I named one of the stories "A Lean, Well-Painted Face," in homage to that great Hemingway story. It's nowhere near in his league, but it was my way of saying thank you for his inspiration and motivation.
I mention all this to draw attention to the fact that May is "National Short Story Month." And I'm mighty proud of the fact that DEROS: Vietnam is taking its place alongside Winner Take Nothing and similar great collections by such fine authors as Edna O'Brien, James Jones, and others. My friends at Open Road Media are showcasing many of our works all this month, so check it out.
And while you're at it read "A Clean, Well Lighted Place" this month. You're likely to echo the comments of the great writer James Joyce who remarked: "He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read 'A Clean Well-Lighted Place'?... It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written..."
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